My wife occasionally mentions a repeated gag on the fake news broadcast on Saturday Night Live in the 70s. After other mangled news, the announcer would say, “And Franco is still dying.” Given what he could expect in the next world, it’s no wonder he was slow about moving there.
But the record for slow political deaths surely belongs to Israel’s Labor Party. Labor was born in 1968 as a coalition of three Labor Zionist parties, and has been engaged in expiring slowly ever since. The central component of the party was Mapai, which for practical purposes founded the State of Israel. In the brutal light of history, one can see that Mapai began dying as soon as the state was born. As a party aimed achieving national independence, it became obsolete at that moment.
At times Mapai/Labor has looked for a new purpose, but without much enthusiasm or stick-to-itness. Instead, it has mostly stuck to guarding the privileges of the class that created the state, and of the organizations that had acquired vested political interests in the process of national liberation, such as the kibbutz movements. But the kibbutzim are privatizing into neighborhoods. Most of the secular, Ashkenazi Jews whose parents or grandparents believed in Labor Zionism are middle class Israelis who know as little about socialism as they know about Shinto.
When the party chose Ehud Barak to lead it again, it may have chosen the man who will put it securely in history books, to be misexplained by Israeli eighth graders, the local equivalent of the Whigs in the United States.
The latest poll in Ha’aretz showed that Labor under Barak will get 12-13 Knesset seats in the next election, about two-thirds of its dismal showing in the last couple of elections. This may actually be an extremely optimistic poll, though. At the moment, the only possible reason for voting Labor is that one has been doing so for so many years that one cannot break the habit, or has forgotten that voting is intended to influence policy, not just express tribal loyalties.
As Haim has pointed out, Barak has said virtually nothing about the major issues facing the country since being rechosen as Labor leader. But what could he say? For a few years, as it recovered from its post-Six-Day War hawkishness, Labor was the ostensible choice of wishy-washy doves. Back in 1997, Barak was chosen as party leader the first time on the thesis that he’d complete Yitzhak Rabin’s work of making peace with the Palestinians. He not only failed. He created a narrative for his failure that covered up his manifest inability to negotiate by claiming that peace with the Palestinians was virtually unachievable. As much as anyone can figure out, Barak is now to the right of Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni – no great doves themselves. But if one wants to vote to the right of Kadima, there are several other parties there, including the one led by Bibi Netanyahu, he of the fear-mongering and the Friedmanist economics. If one wants wishy-washy attempts at peace to go with Friedmanism, one can vote for Kadima. The question is not why Labor only gets 12 seats in the poll, but why the polls assign it that many. It’s still dying, but its misery may soon end.
Addendum: I began writing the post above at the airport on my way to South Africa. Since my plane actually left early, I didn’t have time to include one more element. So here’s the rest from Jo’burg airport.
Once upon a time, Labor also stood for socialism, or social democracy. Mapai built a socialist state before it had a state – health care for the workers, unions, employment bureaus – and completed the process soon after independence. Anyone – meaning any American troglodyte – who wants to laugh at the word “socialism” should talk an American-born Israeli who has faced a major medical crisis in Israel. In my case, the cost of my wife’s emergency C-section, her extended hospital stay, and my son’s 35 days in neo-natal intensive care was precisely zero. In the US, it would have shot through a standard pregnancy policy and cost us the house.
But Labor completed its transition to fundamentalist Friedmanism in the 1980s under Shimon Peres (that name again). The working class channels its justifiable economic resentments into nationalist fervor and nostalgia for Menachem Begin’s economic populism, which gave working people their own cars even if it bankrupted the country.
In 2006, in a brief attempt at rising from clinical death, Labor chose social democrat and union leader Amir Peretz as its leader. Peretz, it would appear, managed to pry some votes away from the Likud in poor towns where people remembered Bibi’s assault on the poor when he served as finance minister. That injection balanced out the party’s slow hemorrhage of votes and the tribal refusal of some Ashkenazim to vote for a Moroccan-born candidate.
Then Peretz sold out. Rather than insist on the Finance Ministry, he gave into the spartan ethic (established by Labor from the 60s onward) that only generals can be national leaders. To fill in his qualifications for prime minister, he accepted the defense portfolio and abandoned economic issues. The generals steered him and Ehud Olmert into the disaster of Lebanon. Social democracy as a limb of Labor ideology suffered permanent gangrene. The party now stands for nothing. Eventually, “nothing” will also be its total on election day. In the meantime, Labor is still dying.